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Menlo Park skydivers to be inducted into Hall of Fame

 
Alan Eustace and Deke Sonnichsen, both of Menlo Park, hadn't known each other — or of each other's skydiving achievements — until they met recently at Cafe Borrone to speak to an Almanac reporter. Photo by Sadie Stinson/The Almanac

Who knew Menlo Park was a mini-mecca for skydiving? Apparently, not even the two men who make it so.

Until they met recently for an interview at Cafe Borrone, neither Alan Eustace nor Deke Sonnichsen realized that another Menlo Park resident is being inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame.

Eustace, a recently retired senior vice president at Google, and Sonnichsen, a former aerospace engineer, will both receive this accolade in October. They'll be honored at a banquet in Riverside along with eight other men and women for lifetime achievements in the high-flying sport.

Skydiving didn't begin as a hobby for Sonnichsen. In 1951, two years after graduating from Palo Alto High School, he joined the Army and became a paratrooper in the Korean War. "I wasn't thrilled with the military," Sonnichsen said, "but I sure liked jumping out of airplanes."

That passion took off when he returned home. In 1956, Sonnichsen started the California Parachute Club, the first parachuting club in the U.S. He then dove at numerous international competitions in the coming years, leading the U.S. team at the World Parachuting Championships in 1962 and 1964.

But his greatest contribution to skydiving occurred on the ground. In 1963, at his home on Menlo Park's Ringwood Avenue, Sonnichsen led the team that developed the first "piggyback rig"—a simpler, safer parachute design that has since become the international standard.

"Before, your reserve parachute was this giant thing on your chest. When you had to use it, it would throw you back up, it would bend you backwards," Eustace explained. "Moving this (reserve chute) to the back is certainly in the top five innovations of skydiving, period—and you could argue it's either one or two."

Eustace didn't take to skydiving as quickly as Sonnichsen, he says. When he made his first jump in 1975 for his friend's 18th birthday, he wasn't sure he wanted to go again. But his friend's enthusiasm led him back into the clouds, and eventually, he came to love it there.

"Skydiving is always freeing," he said. "People think of it as falling, but it's really flying."

Since then, Eustace has made nearly 600 jumps at locations all over the world. One jump, however, vaulted him into the record books: In 2014, he logged the highest fall and the longest flight time in skydiving history.

Like Sonnichsen's accomplishment, Eustace's achievement was as much a feat of engineering as one of courage and athleticism. Eustace, who had managed large teams of Google engineers since 2002, worked with engineers at an aerospace company to design a rig and a custom space suit, which allowed him to ascend to an astonishing 135,889 feet.

"It was beautiful," Eustace told a New York Times reporter after free falling for four minutes and 27 seconds. "You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere."

Neither man has any intention of staying grounded in his retirement. Eustace, 62, still logs 60 to 70 jumps a year, he says. And at 88, Sonnichsen says he hasn't made his last jump, either.

They do, however, have every intention of getting to know each other.

"I had no idea there was someone around here who had done these kinds of things," Eustace told Sonnichsen as they left the cafe. "Can I take you to lunch sometime?"

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